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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game